Peruvian Women Once Wore Burka-Like Attire as Cloaks of Rebellion
In an era where the term “burka” evokes images of oppressive regimes, notably Afghanistan's coercive imposition on women, it may come as a surprise that the tapada limeña (meaning “the covered one from Lima”) was used as a cloak of female resistance to authority by the women of Lima for over three hundred years.
The tapada limeña gained popularity between the 16th and 19th centuries in Lima, capital of the Viceroyalty of Peru and center of the Spanish colonial administration in the area. Women would clothe themselves with a shirt, a saya (a skirt reaching over their feet), a cloak and a manto (shawl) so as to cover their entire bodies, except one eye which remained exposed.
The outfit could seem repressive to modern-day sensibilities, but in reality it allowed them far more freedom than was usual at the time. This was due to the anonymity it provided, as it was almost impossible to identify who was hiding underneath.
“The Tapadas Limeñas had nothing to do with puritanism,” explained La Vanguardia. “With their belted dresses they appeared provocative and sensual, in a way that challenged traditional ideas about the subservience of women.”
Clad in their tapada limeña, women were able to transgress with impunity; archival evidence includes tales of their use for illicit trysts or to courier messages during Peru’s fight for independence. This can explain why the practice of wearing this clothing was unpopular in the Catholic church and it was banned—unsuccessfully—on more than one occasion.
Left. Tapadas Limeñas in a photo by Eugenio Courret. (Public domain) Right: A lovers’ tryst by moonlight in Lima’s Plaza Mayor by Mauro Rugendas. (Public domain)
Spanish Archbishop Toribio de Mogrovejo saw it as a challenge to Christian valuea, while in 1624 Viceroy Diego Fernández de Córdoba sought to ban the tapada limeña with penalties varying according to social status: noblewomen faced ten days in jail, while lower classes endured a month.
Women who wore them were described as “insolent vipers” by one poet, while they were even blamed for the 1746 earthquake which destroyed Lima: “God had punished the capital for the audacity of some women that everyone, native and foreign, considered to be an erotic symbol,” claimed La Vanguardia. In 1833, the feminist Flora Tristán wrote that the women of Lima were the “freest in the world” since their clothing allowed them to evade the surveillance of men.
While for many years it was thought that the tapada limeña belonged exclusively to the landscape of Lima, it appears that the tradition was shared with women in Vejer de la Frontera, Spain, where they were called cobijadas and are have been adopted as the towns traditional attire.
The origins of the tapada limeña or cobijadas have been attributed to a past Moorish influence, possibly carried to South America by converted Muslims (moriscos). Another theory attributes its roots to its Castillian heritage.
Top image: Lady and duenna, wearing their tapada limeña, going to church, by Pancho Fierro. Source: Public domain